Welcome back to Gaming Shelf, io9’s column all about tabletop and roleplaying games. Gen Con 2019 brought us a bunch of exciting announcements for new and upcoming releases. We couldn’t possibly get through all of them, but here are some highlights!
News and Releases
Marvel Champions: The Card Game
Fantasy Flight Games is entering the Marvel Universe with Marvel Champions: The Card Game, a cooperative card game where players work together as Marvel heroes to stop some of the franchise’s most dangerous villains. The Core Set has over 350 cards and starts with five heroes: Captain Marvel, Iron Man, She-Hulk, Spider-Man, and Black Panther. And since it’s a Fantasy Flight game, many, many more cards are on the horizon. In fact, the company says there will be new expansions every month. The core set is available for preorder at about $60, and comes out later this fall.
The Adventure Zone
The McElroys’ Dungeons & Dragons podcast-turned-graphic novel and nerdy phenomenon is now heading to the tabletop. Twogether Studios has announced it’s working with the McElroys on a tabletop game based on The Adventure Zone, a podcast that features the three brothers and their dad venturing through different D&D games, and has also inspired some fan-favorite characters and cosplay. No information or expected release date have been announced yet.
Star Trek Chrono-Trek
Star Trek and time travel—they’re kind of a package deal. So, it only makes sense that Looney Labs has taken on Star Trek in its latest version of Chrononauts, called Star Trek Chrono-Trek. In this card game, players are trapped in an alternate reality and have to work to ensure certain events happen in the timeline…or maybe you have to prevent them! Either way, Tribbles are bound to show up. Star Trek Chrono-Trek is currently available for $25.
Green Ronin Publishing has signed a licensing agreement with N.K. Jemisin to build a roleplaying game set in the world of the Broken Earth trilogy. The roleplaying game series will start in fall 2020 with The Fifth Season RPG—makes sense, since not only is it the first book in the trilogy, but it’s also the one TNT announced back in 2017 was being adapted into a TV show. In a statement, the three-time Hugo winner said she’ll be working with Green Ronin to “make sure the spirit and feel of the books is rendered successfully.”
Unmatched: Jurassic Park
Mondo Games and Restoration Games have announced that Jurassic Park is being added to the Unmatched head-to-head series of battle board games. The game’s first deck will feature “InGen vs. Raptors,” due later this year, with plans for a “Dr. Ellie Sattler vs. T-Rex” face-off and a solo expansion for Dr. Alan Grant coming out next year. According to Dice Tower News, Unmatched: Jurassic Park is replacing Jurassic Park: The Chaos Gene, which is no longer in development.
Cyberpunk 2077—Afterlife: The Card Game
Cyberpunk 2077 has been a video game several years in the making, and that’s an understatement. Now, it’s getting not just one, but at least two versions. CMON and CD Projekt Red have revealed Cyberpunk 2077—Afterlife, a card game based on the upcoming cyberpunk video game. In the card game, players take on the role of Fixers working in Night City to recruit cyberpunks and send them out on missions. Afterlife is set to come out sometime in 2020, presumably around the video game’s release date of April 16, 2020.
The little figurines based on nerddom’s biggest characters are now getting a board game world of their own. Funko has announced Funkoverse, a series of board games based on its versions of characters from DC Comics, Harry Potter, Rick & Morty, and The Golden Girls (what?). The competitive, light-strategy games are designed to be family-friendly, and expansions are already available for some of them. The basic games run around $40, with expansions costing around $25, and are currently available on <a rel="nofollow" data-amazonasin data-amazonsubtag="[t|link[p|1836672341[au|5876237249235885598[b|gizmodo[lt|text" onclick="window.ga('send', 'event', 'Commerce', 'gizmodo – Playing Cool Games with Funko, The Adventure Zone, and More in Tabletop News’, ”);window.ga(‘unique.send’, ‘event’, ‘Commerce’, ‘gizmodo – Playing Cool Games with Funko, The Adventure Zone, and More in Tabletop News’, ”);” data-amazontag=”gizmodoamzn-20″ href=”https://www.amazon.com/stores/page/58E59F84-64FA-4387-9006-A88070BDE441?ingress=2&visitId=bf8a1571-7b74-4d4c-895c-0c0b2255b259&ref_=bl_dp_s_web_2592291011&tag=gizmodoamzn-20&ascsubtag=5406e92173b8030e382a4664cd321e2f8fba27a0″>Amazon.
Bloodsoaked Fjord Domain Pack and more (Sorcerer)
White Wizard Games’ Sorcerer, a dueling mages game, is getting three new expansions that range from $5 to $10. As reported by The Gaming Gang, there’s the Character Pack featuring Virgiliu, a pyromancer; the Sylvanei Lineage Pack that focuses on druids; and the Bloodsoaked Fjord Domain Pack, centering around the trolls of the north. The expansions come out August 13.
Fiasco, a light GM-less roleplaying game that plays like a series of fun catastrophe films, is getting a version that’s more accessible to those who aren’t experienced with roleplaying games. The new card-based edition replaces the dice and index cards with playing cards, enabling players to create characters and change scenarios much easier. There are plans to roll out “old favorites and new surprises” in the future, ensuring a lot of variety and repeated gameplay. They’re also looking into developing tools for players to develop their own cards and future scenarios.
Fiasco is on Kickstarter through September 4. The minimum pledge for a digital copy is $10 and a box set is $30, and the physical version is set to ship by December.
What if evil corporations were, like, actually evil? That’s the plot of Techlandia, a new 1-4 player tabletop game where players are undercover reporters attending a press conference at Techlandia Corporation, the world’s biggest smartphone company. You’re not there to learn about phones, you’re trying to uncover a secret cult that’s hell-bent on global domination. I’ve had a chance to play it myself, and it’s a fun mix of quirky social commentary and Lovecraftian horror. Techlandia will be on Kickstarter through September 5. The minimum pledge for a copy is $39, and it’s set to ship in April 2020.
HEXplore It: The Sands of Shurax
The Sands of Shurax is the third game in the HEXplore It series. The cooperative game centers around heroes working together to battle the Ravager of Shurax, which is causing havoc throughout the land. Players battle, trade, explore, excavate, and do all kinds of cool shit. The Sands of Shurax is on Kickstarter through September 1. The minimum pledge for a copy is $64, and it’s set to come out August 2020.
Paws & Claws
Paws & Claws is a tabletop roleplaying game inspired by the animal worlds of Watership Down, The Builders, and the Redwall series. Taking place in the fictional realm of Wudlind, Paws & Claws has players take on roles within a thriving animal kingdom as you all work together to keep the balance…or perhaps you choose to seize power for yourself. The game will be on Kickstarter through September 1. The minimum pledge for a digital copy is $20, and it’s set to come out September 2020. There’s also a free Quickstart Guide on DriveThruRPG for those who want to try it out before funding the campaign.
For a hot second, I thought this was a roleplaying game set in the universe of Disney Pixar’s Cars franchise, and I was both terrified and excited. Instead, The Carniverse is a campaign skirmish system for two players that takes place in a Jurassic World 3-style realm where dinosaurs rule the Earth. Governments have fallen and humanity struggles to survive the new Age of Dinosaurs. There are no branded models for the game—instead, it’s designed to be played with your own 28mm miniatures. If you don’t have any, you can probably use whatever toys you have lying around the house. LEGO Dr. Malcolm, anyone?
The Carniverse will be on Kickstarter through August 29. The minimum pledge for a digital copy is $12, which will be released in October. A physical copy requires a $23 pledge, and comes out January 2020.
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As I’ve recently put on record here, I think Tokaido is the best digital board game. Its stay at the top might be short-lived, though, because Raiders of the North Sea, out this week on PC, Switch and mobile, is very good.
I reviewed the board game last year, and loved it; it’s since become one of my all-time favourites, a regular on my crew’s rotation to the point we’ve now got all the expansions and even a fancy game mat. All of which I’m saying to make this clear: I am starting these impressions from a position where I’m already a very big fan of the game.
Even taking that into account, though, this is still a terrific adaptation. Like Tokaido, it’s just the right kind of game for this type of conversion, complex enough that it has a world and characters to bring to life, simple enough that it’s perfect for putting on your phone and killing 20 minutes with when the opportunity arises.
And like Tokaido, it’s a game where the primary challenge is against the game’s design and systems rather than direct interaction, so you’re not missing too much by competing against an AI rather than a human opponent.
The best thing Raiders has going for it, though, is simply the quality of the adaptation. The worst board game conversions are lazy ones, that simply recreate the tabletop experience and do little more (Terraforming Mars’ recent outing being a big offender), and the second-worst are those where even if a bit of effort has been put into the adaptation, the board game was simply not suited to the particular strengths (and weaknesses) of a video game platform in the first place.
I’ve already explained how Raiders gets past the latter issue, and the former is taken care of with a beautiful digital conversion of Mihajlo Dimitrievski’s iconic series art, which brings the game’s coastal map to life with moving ships, animated sieges and flowing water.
Wait, what’s this game about again?
Raiders of the North Sea is a simple but elegant worker placement game, where the objective is to gather crew and provisions in your home region before setting out to raid the surrounding countryside. It’s played by putting a worker down on a building to perform its action, then picking up a different worker to perform a second action. That’s it, that’s literally all you do, and it’s great.
Perhaps to make the whole package seem a bit more video gamey, Raiders has added a campaign mode, something the board game original doesn’t have. It’s nothing big, so don’t expect cinematic cutscenes or 3D action sequences. Instead it gives you ten missions that mess with the core game’s rules, giving you challenges like playing on a smaller map or adjusting the worth and scarcity of certain resources. Like I said, it’s nothing major, but for experienced players (or those looking for a bridge between the tutorial and a full game) it’s a fun little addition.
I’d imagine the bulk of player’s experience though will simply be playing sessions in the main, full game. Since I’ve already reviewed it I’m not going to go over it again, but what I will say is that controlling Raiders couldn’t be simpler. You just drag a meeple to drop it, then you drag one off the map to pick it up, while the UI governing your hand of cards, crew, resources and the overall state of the game is fast, clear and smart.
I’ve been playing both the PC and Android versions and, while the PC edition is fine, it’s also more expensive than the mobile editions, which play better anyway since dragging your finger across the screen is quicker and easier than dragging a mouse cursor. The nature of the game, and its quick-save capabilities, also lend themselves more to a mobile experience than setting in for a session on a desktop.
I’m going to give Tokaido some time at the top—both to see this game’s staying power, and whether Tokaido’s long-coming Crossroads expansion ever makes it to mobile—but for now Raiders is mounting a serious challenge as one of the best mobile board games out there.
The grim dark future of the 41st Millennium is coming to live-action television for the first time—and Games Workshop has recruited the creator behind Amazon’s Man in the High Castle adaptation, Frank Spotnitz, to do so.
Announced today by the wardens of the Warhammer 40K and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar tabletop gaming franchises—and the vast multimedia empire of books, comics, games, and other adaptations behind them—Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions will helm a live-action TV show based around the character of Gregor Eisenhorn.
Eisenhorn isn’t one of the giant, armor-clad Space Marines that defend the human empire of the gory, 41st millennium Warhammer 40,000 is set in. Instead, he’s an Inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos—a free-roaming agent of the God-Emperor of Mankind that goes about hunting down the taint of daemons and other alien influences from Humanity and its vast, but ever-dwindling Imperium.
Created in 2001 by writer Dan Abnett initially for a series of Warhammer 40K novels, Eisenhorn and his motley retinue of fellow Inquisitors have become some of the most beloved characters in the vast lore of the tabletop franchise, spawning spinoff video games, audio dramas, comics, and, as it is Games Workshop, some rather pricey but rather lovely models.
Spotnitz will serve as both showrunner and executive producer on the series—alongside Big Light Productions’ creative director, Emily Feller—which has only recently entered development, as this gleefully silly flowchart explanation from Games Workshop themselves explains, intended for fans more into their tabletop miniatures than the nitty-gritty details of TV production:
There’s probably less giant cathedral ships of mass destruction involved in making TV though. Only guessing on that front.
It’s far from Games Workshop’s first attempt to spin off its beloved tabletop series into the realm of cinema—Abnett himself penned the script for the 2010 animated Space Marine movie Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie, and more recently, the company recruited a 40Kfan filmmaker, Richard Boylan, to produce a new animated web series about the Blood Angels chapter of the Space Marines.
But even compared to those projects, this is a massive undertaking for Warhammer 40K’s presence beyond the miniature battlefields it has called home for decades. We’ll bring you more on Games Workshop and Spotnitz’s plans for Eisenhorn as and when we learn it.
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Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
I love games that involve bluffing, even though I can never tell when any of my friends are lying. This past weekend, my poker night buddies and I played a tabletop game called Skull, which involves bluffing. I didn’t win, perhaps because I have too much faith in my friends.
The apocryphal origin story of Skull is that biker gangs would play it to settle disputes without resorting to violence. You can easily play it with a set of bar coasters, as long as you have a pen. Each player gets four coasters, one of which has a skull drawn on it. Players place a coaster or coasters with the drawn-on side down. You then bluff (or be honest) by saying that you can turn over your own coaster(s) without revealing a skull. You can further decide whether or not you think other players’ coasters don’t have skulls. You of course know whether or not you put down a skull, but the only way to tell who does and doesn’t have a skull is their body language and sense of confidence. If players don’t call your bluff and you reveal that you lied about whether or not you had a skull, or if you’re wrong about someone else lying, you lose the round.
Rounds are short and sweet. For example, in one of our early matches, my friend boasted that he could flip over three coasters without revealing a skull. No one was willing to challenge him. The result was that my friend had to reveal that he secretly had put down a skull coaster and was hoping someone would meet his challenge and fall into his trap. Since no one bit, he had to flip over his own skull and knock himself out of the game, which he did with a performative and hilarious flourish. We saw the skull and roared in delight at the contrast to his overconfidence a moment prior.
Meanwhile, I discovered that although I am okay at bluffing, I’m not very good at perceiving when other people are doing it. If my friend declared that they could easily flip over their own coasters without a skull being among them, I just believed them. I’d try to figure out if they were lying first, of course. I’d narrow my eyes, study their body language, and listen to their voice for any quaver, and yet none of that helped me. I’d still conclude, “You sound confident,” then flip over their skull and meet my proverbial death.
I have the same problem when we play poker. I can never tell when my friends are lying, perhaps because I don’t want to believe that they are, even when that’s the whole point of the game. More importantly, it’s a form of losing that I’ve discovered I can tolerate. If I lose because I believed the best in someone, is that really a loss? I’m still losing because of my own lack of skill, in theory, but really I’m losing because I believe in my friends.
I still had a fun time getting fooled by my own friends. I like to think that all of these Skull sessions (not to mention our poker games) are giving me more information about what my friends look like when they lie. Someday, that knowledge will pay off. In a game of Skull, obviously—they’d never lie to me at any other time, I’m sure. They’re my friends.
At the gaming table, no one can hear you scream. io9 can exclusively reveal that Tales From the Loop creator Free League Publishing has teamed up with 20th Century Fox to create an original tabletop roleplaying game series set in the world of Alien. And it’s coming out this year.
Free League is currently developing its latest tabletop RPG, Alien: The Roleplaying Game, which will be an original story set within the Alien universe. It features an open-world campaign mode, a series of pre-generated “Cinematic” storylines, and gorgeous artwork by folks like Martin Grip, John Mullaney and Axel Torvenius. You can watch the announcement trailer below.
Alien: The Roleplaying Game is is the first tabletop RPG for the Alien franchise since Aliens Adventure Game came out in 1989. While that game was specifically based on the plot of Aliens, the 1986 sequel to the iconic original film, Alien: The Roleplaying Game is more open-ended, taking place in the Alien universe with original characters and brand-new stories. That means we won’t be seeing in-game cameos from movie characters like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)—unless Game Masters choose to add them—but their actions play an important part in the story and world.
In an interview with io9, game director and Free League co-founder Tomas Härenstam shared that the world of Alien: The Roleplaying Game takes place shortly after the events of Alien 3,—which means Alien: Resurrection won’t technically factor in, as it takes place further in the future. Härenstam explained why they chose to set it during that time, how it affects the game’s world, and what it means for the prequels.
“We’re focusing more on certain aspects of the universe than others. I think the key thing there is we’ve set our game in the year 2183, that’s a very conscious choice,” he said. “The more recent prequel movies, PrometheusandAlien: Covenant, those are part of the canon, part of the story and universe. But as they take place in a much earlier era, that era is not where our focus lies.”
Even though Alien is a hardcore and intense sci-fi experience, with decades of lore and expanded content, the roleplaying game is designed to appeal to both experts and newcomers. For people well-versed in RPGs, there’s a traditional campaign, where players can take on the role of blue-collar workers, marines, explorers, even androids, venturing into the Outer Rim and encountering lots of face-hugging aliens. For others who may be trying roleplaying for the first time, there’s the “Cinematic” experience, a series of pre-generated storylines that can be played in a single sitting. The first one is called Chariot of the Gods, written by sci-fi author Andrew E.C. Gaska (Death of the Planet of the Apes). Härenstam compared it to the pre-made stories made for Tales From The Loop.
“We wanted to make [Alien] an approachable game. Our most successful game to-date is Tales From The Loop. Of course it’s very different from this game, but there are some similarities to how we approach it,” Härenstam said. “In [Cinematic] mode, you play scenarios with pre-generated characters and sort of a core arc. They emulate the dramatic structure of an Alien film. It’s sort of built for one-shots and shorter play.”
The RPG only comes with Chariot of the Gods, but there are plans to release more pre-generated storylines in the future. They’re designed to be interconnected, like direct sequels of each other, meaning a group of players can continue their personalized storylines and characters. But, as Härenstam put it, not everyone is going to get that option, as the Cinematic stories can be brutal or even deadly.
“The [stories] can be tied together. Maybe not the same characters, because they might not survive, but they can continue the story and thread it all together,” he said.
When asked why Free League decided to take on a violent and intense series like Alien—especially coming after Tales From The Loop and the Things From The Floodexpansion, which centered around kids—Härenstam said it’s because the team as a whole is really into hard sci-fi and has been yearning to take on a project like this. In fact, he said the team has been searching for a licensing partnership for a long time, and Alien was continually the preferred choice.
Härenstam also cited his personal fandom of the franchise, something that started when he saw the first movie when he was “probably far too young.”
It has sort of the darkness to it. Obviously, that was something I was drawn to. And the mystery, [which is] especially strong in the first movie. There are so many things that are not explained. That sense of horror and awe, but also that sense of wonder of what’s actually out there.
I also really like the blue collar aspect of it. The protagonists of the movie, they’re not super people in any way. They’re workers, hard workers in outer space. That idea of a vision of the future where everything is not bright and shiny, but there is an everyday type of feel, even in outer space. That was something I had not seen before.
Free League’s announcement comes on the heels of Disney’s purchase of Fox, which has opened the door for more films or shows in that universe. Alien: The Roleplaying Game is set to come out by the end of the year. Härenstam confirmed that there won’t be a Kickstarter campaign for this game, but it will be available for pre-order before it’s released.
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I used to play in the same Dungeons & Dragons campaign every week. Now my friends and I struggle to arrange a play session every few months. At one point I tried to make it work with another group. We made a six-month Doodle calendar to find one date we could meet. We got together, discussed character creation, and never met up again. A campaign takes so much setup, homework, planning and scheduling and rescheduling, it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Meanwhile, I made more friends who wanted to play, but didn’t know the rules. How would I ever find time to introduce them to the game, if I couldn’t even find time for more experienced players?
I wanted to play outside the house, with minimal supplies, planning, or commitment. So I had to change my approach. I looked for games that met my needs: mechanics everyone could learn in one session, but were still strong enough to bring structure and keep this from being make believe; scenarios we could jump into without an extra session for planning or character creation; no piles of dice or sheafs of paper or GM screen; no commitment past the first session.
I figured out how to play RPGs in any setting, with minimal supplies, planning, or commitment. I got to play RPGs for the first time in months. I ran two sessions in two weeks, with zero emails or Doodles. One session with my experienced friends, and one with four Lifehacker staffers who had never played an RPG. Both games were a hit. Here’s how you can run your own.
Play a One-Shot
If you and your friends are too busy to run an extended campaign, you’ve probably already tried a one-shot. Because everyone is less invested, they can whip up characters faster and start in the middle of the action. Everyone, including the GM running the game, is motivated to get less bogged down in side quests or negotiations or foreshadowing visions. Because you start fresh each time, you don’t have to keep track of possessions and levels and skills.
This style is great for casual play, when you have no standing date for games, and when you’re playing out and about. You could start a three-year campaign with deep character development, but I’d advise starting with a few one-shots, until one feels fun enough to keep playing.
A lot of RPGs are overpowered for a one-shot—when you need to wrap up the story in two hours, every minute you spend looking up weapon damage feels wasted. But if you’re already familiar with a ruleset, you can choose to follow only the basics. Dungeon Crawl Classics has one of these built in: a DCC campaign traditionally starts with a “zero-level funnel,” in which each player controls multiple unskilled peasants, most of whom die by the end. That’s a great one-shot on its own. Character creation is minimal, players have few stats to look up, and all the characters are equally suited to the task. (The GM still has a lot of characters to keep track of, and a lot of dice to roll.)
Game developer John Harper, creator of the popular one-page RPG Lasers & Feelings and the three-page Dungeon World spinoff World of Dungeons, loves complex games. His favorite game, he tells me in an interview, is The Burning Wheel. “It’s one of the rare games where the more work you put in as a player, the more you get out of it.” How much work? He says he really started sucking the marrow around the thirtieth or fortieth play session. But his usual gaming group also liked to play out at a bar. “It felt weird to be at the bar and have a very intense role-play scene.” So they’d play more “punchy, adventurey things,” often pausing the game to chat, switching back and forth. It helped to have a focused mission instead of a grand plot. One of his favorite games for this kind of play is the 48-page Into the Odd, a gothic game where each character has only three stats, and where a session can run about two hours. The group also played Dungeon World and Apocalypse World.
Use a One-Page RPG
In a casual setting, you want a game that’s mentally and physically smaller. Mentally, you want fewer rules to learn, fewer specifics to choose for your character before you start playing. You want to make decisions fast, and you want the GM to keep up. The more you can rely on imagination and cooperation, the less you have to rely on a sourcebook.
Physically, you don’t want all the stuff used in a typical RPG: sourcebooks, specialized dice (or funky dice), printouts, maps, a GM screen, pencils and paper, figurines or tokens. This is all cool and fun when you’re committing to a campaign with a group: one person shares their sourcebook, the GM keeps everyone’s character sheets between games, and everyone loves collecting bags full of weird dice. But you can’t pull out all this accoutrement at a small coffee shop or a picnic. And you can’t rely on the one person with the extra dice if they don’t show up to every game.
What you want is a lightweight, portable RPG. Super light weight. Ideally a single page. Luckily there are dozens of popular microRPGs online, with rulesets that fit on one or two pages, given out for free by their creators. Most only require a couple of six-sided dice (D6’s, in gamer terms), though some use the typical set of specialized RPG dice, especially the famous D20.
You’ll notice a lot of these games are silly, and the rules can be vague. They’re not built for long campaigns that fully explore your character’s backstory as you grow more powerful. Not until you hack them, anyway.
All the games listed above and below are free, and many explicitly carry a Creative Commons license that allows others to remix and redistribute them. Some players have collected their favorites into PDF compilations, like this four-page pack of 12 games.
If you want to watch someone else play a game, the Tempting Fate series (from gaming channel Saving Throw) is dedicated to playing microRPGs.
Actually, Just Use Lasers & Feelings
I was immediately drawn to Lasers & Feelings, which uses a simple system with two stats: lasers, and feelings. The better you are at one, the worse you are at the other.
Technically it’s one stat—a number from 2 to 5. Whenever you try to do something difficult, you decide whether it requires “laser” skills (logic, science, research) or “feelings” skills (passion, seduction, morale). Then you roll a six-sided die. You want to roll higher than your one stat to succeed at feelings, lower than your stat to succeed at lasers. There are no modifiers, though you can roll an extra die to represent preparation or expertise.
Similar to the Powered by the Apocalypse system, you can get results other than success and failure: critical success, which allows you to ask a question of the GM, and mixed success, which comes at a cost or with a caveat.
Also similarly to PbtA, the GM spends most of their time introducing the next complication or twist and asking the players, “What do you do next?” Combat is handled the same way as other actions, with no hit point or damage systems.
To play, all you need is a copy of the rules and at least one die. Character creation takes about five minutes (in addition to the stat, there are some class and flavor choices), and the GM can select a scenario from the given options, or roll for a random one.
The game only works if you can common-sense your way through things—or intentionally go nonsensical. All the crunch—number-crunching, the game mechanics—is shrunk into one stat and one dice roll, so everything in the game depends on interpretation. Everyone needs to be ready to agree with each other, because arguing over the rules would be absurd. The players need to be flexible, the GM needs to be reasonably consistent, and everyone needs to be creative. But that’s why you chose an RPG and not a board game.
John Harper wrote Lasers & Feelings in four hours in 2013, updating it the next day after a playtest. He borrowed the over-under system from Trollbabe, a 2002 game with a 70s underground comics vibe. He mostly built L&F for experienced gamers, who could use their knowledge of RPG conventions to interpret his concise rules. “There are still fairly unclear rules that people still ask me about,” he tells me. But he likes leaving them ambiguous.
The Lasers & Feelings system is so robust that the game quickly spawned dozens of “hacks,” which adapt the rule system to different genres. These games still use six-sided dice and one or two pages of rules, but they switch out the setting, the character classes, the stats, and the possible scenarios. The blog Writing Alchemy has collected over 40 of these hacks, including:
You can tweak any of these, or hack your own—which doesn’t require writing up a new one-sheet. You can just name a few character classes, describe your setting, and invent an adventure. For one of my playtests, I whipped up a medieval palace intrigue called Swords and Sorcery. It was very poorly thought out and it worked great.
Most L&F hacks are based on an existing genre or specific media property. There’s no room for a compendium of original monsters or extensive lore about the setting and characters. You have to pull from existing tropes and make up the details.
Everybody Play Nice
The less written material a game has, the more the players and GM need to work things out with each other. The rules lawyer in your group might hate this. So will the GM who likes to rule as a petty tyrant. In a traditional at-home game, says Harper, the GM tends to be high-status. Playing out in the world helps to level that playing field. Lightweight games can’t support an antagonistic relationship between GM and players.
Almost anything goes in these games, so you have to bring your social skills if you don’t want to devolve into a game of “Oh yeah? Well I’m wearing an infinity suit.” The GM also needs to orient the players, guide their level of contribution. In L&F, Harper says, it’s helpful that the GM asks the whole table “What do you do?” instead of just one player.
You have to ignore (or have fun with) a lot of details in a casual game. As a player, your items don’t have stats. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re wearing leather armor or chainmail, unless you want to make it matter for some creative reason. If you’re used to playing RPGs like a video game, you have to think differently.
As a GM, you need to improvise a lot more. You have to know how to have fun and keep things moving, but also how to avoid “crazy town”—an improv term for a situation where there’s nothing normal to hold onto, so none of the silliness matters. But this is a fantastic trade-off, because you don’t have to plan. At all. You can literally roll a die to figure out what adventure you’ll be narrating.
You do owe your players an ending. Don’t let the casual nature of the game lead you to fizzle out. Most of the time you’ll want your players to succeed, unless it’s in the nature of the game (like anything Lovecraft-inspired) to have a high chance of failure. But even if you’re going to spend a half-hour just hanging out afterward, you’ll feel better if you have some closure.
While microRPGs can be good for new players, I wouldn’t recommend them for first-time GMs. If you want to run a microRPG, you’ll find it a lot easier if you’ve run, or at least played, several sessions of an RPG (whether it was traditional or micro).
Always Be Ready to Play
You can comfortably play most micro-RPGs using only your phone: pull up a PDF to look up the character types or scenarios. Google “dice roller” and Google will roll a six-sided die for you.
If you prefer real dice, keep a pair of dice in your pocket or bag. Or see if your local bar or coffee shop has a couple board games in the corner, and borrow from those.
The first time you play a particular system, it can be helpful to have the rules printed out, maybe even an extra copy for the players. But even that first time, you can get by with phones if you need to. If phones get too distracting, ask everyone to go to airplane mode.
After the first session or two, you should know how to start a game anywhere. You just need a few friends gathered for at least an hour, in a space where you can all comfortably hear each other: at a barbecue, a late-night diner, even in the car on a road trip. It’s a great activity for the tail end of a party, or for entertaining kids.
Case Study 1
My first game was with three members of my usual group, Tim, Molly, and Jason. We met at our local bar, High Dive—good beer, free popcorn, pinball in the back—and after a little chatter and pinball, got down to business with some printouts of Lasers & Feelings. Everyone picked their role on the crew of the SS Raptor, and their style—a sexy engineer, alien doctor, and hot-shot pilot.
I rolled up a secret threat: (1) brain worms trying to (2) protect void crystals to (3) fix everything. Not much of a threat—unless I made it an existential threat for the crew, who would have no more problems to solve around the galaxy once the brain worms had pacified the universe. So I needed to infect the crew with these worms. I, a creative genius, looked at the cup of to-go coffee I’d brought over. And I told my players that the ship had run out of coffee.
We spent two hours on a ridiculous quest on a coffee planet. At one point I image-searched coffee plants, and discovered that (at least on a phone) they look a lot like various poisonous red berries you see in a forest. There we go, a problem to solve. At another point Jason mentioned this scifi book he’d read, where dragon showed up out of nowhere and practically winked at the camera, and how incongruous it felt with the story. So I threw in a fire-breathing dragon to guard the coffee plants.
I’d intended to bring in the brain worms after a few minutes, but I only snuck them in at the end—they’d burrowed into the coffee beans. “The coffeebot turns your foraged beans into delicious coffee, and you’re all energized. But in the middle of the night, Zapf Dingbat wakes up. Zapf, something is whispering from inside your brain: ‘Destroy the ship!’ Oh no! What will happen next time on Lasers & Feelings: I’m Thinking About Those Beans!?” The end.
We were only slightly more grounded than an episode of Comedy Bang Bang: if anyone made a joke and it went over well, it was now canon. People introduced ridiculous bits of backstory on the fly. The alien kept getting new mediocre powers. And because we only had to sustain the story for two hours, we could pile it on.
And yet somehow it remained a game, and not an improv scene. We still cared whether the team completed their mission. Because characters were constantly trying to accomplish tasks, we were rolling dice more often than our usual D&D games. I’d barely read through the one-sheet before we started, as I am very lazy. A couple of the others had given it a skim. But we quickly picked up the mechanics, although as we got drunk, we had a little trouble remembering the over-under rule.
It was a relief to play without all the table-setting, literal and metaphorical, of our usual games. And because we were out at the bar, anyone could stay after—no host to kick everyone out. We’re meeting next week to play a hack of Lasers & Feelings. Currently arguing whether to theme it on Indiana Jones or Boss Baby.
Case Study 2
So it was easy enough to play a casual game with experienced players. But as Harper tells me, with such a barebones system, “you don’t have a lot of stuff to hide behind.” So I stress-tested the L&F system on four people who had never played a tabletop RPG. And it worked great.
I gathered four Lifehacker staffers—EIC Melissa Kirsch, writers Alicia Adamczyk and Josh Ocampo, and senior video producer Joel Kahn—for a happy-hour game at the bar across the street. They’d requested a medieval setting, so over my lunch break I’d hacked up Swords & Sorcery, inserting some medieval tropes into the rules of Lasers & Feelings.
Alicia became Princess Peach, Melissa played a barber-surgeon, Josh a secretive dwarf knight, Joel a scheming wizard. Instead of offering character goals, I borrowed a trick from the Powered by the Apocalypse system and asked everyone to describe their relationship to the character to their left. It turned out they were all involved in the palace court—and most of them were related.
You don’t say no to the players. So instead of a dungeon crawl or quest, I gave them a game of palace intrigue: the king and queen gathered everyone important into the throne room to name their successor, but before they could make their announcement, all the torches sputtered out and the king and queen were murdered. Now our players had to compete for the throne.
I’d never run a player-vs-player game before. It seems harder to sustain friendly make-believe when everyone is competing, especially when who “wins” is really up to the GM. But competition turned out to be a great way to jumpstart interaction. I’ve seen even experienced players take a while to get their merry band together, but here we had characters who canonically knew each other well—easy lifting for these newbies. This is one of the ways a lightweight game relies more on players: you can’t justify things by pointing out your character’s stats, so you have to invent in-world justifications. Everyone got used to adding backstory and details to justify their skills and choices. Character creation never ended, it just turned into gameplay. It was perfect.
Everyone stomped around the castle, trying to take power by persuasion or force, backstabbing each other and forming coalitions and raiding the armory. NPCs came, went, and died. I forget who took the castle, only that the end was a Hamlet-level bloodbath. Conversation flowed faster in this fantasy world than in our usual small talk. And we did it all over cocktails without a single mechanical pencil.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
On Wednesday night, a group of friends and I gathered to spark a revolution. We were playing Comrades, a tabletop RPG that puts its players in the shoes of leftist activists fighting for their causes.
I make it no secret that I am a socialist. That’s right! I’m the political dissident the President is warning you about! Sometimes, my dangerous friends and I gather to play tabletop games. When writer William Akers sent me an advance copy of his new game Comrades, which will launch its Kickstarter campaign next Wednesday, I knew that I had to try it.
The game is based on the Apocalypse World engine, meaning there’s a lot more roleplaying than dice-rolling. Together, we created our world and the right wing regime we would be railing against. In our fictional town of Monarch, Nevada, a right wing family had taken over the government and was threatening to put into place legislation that would devastate the local ecological system. Our first mission was a protest at a monarch butterfly reserve that suddenly turned to violence. Our little team of leftists was tasked with de-escalating the crowd and extracting an activist-turned-media darling who had been injured.
Here’s what we actually spent most of our time on: arguing. Each of the character types come from different backgrounds, and they ended up having different personal goals. Our wealthy Patron, Nadir, was really in it to get back at his family. The Mystic, Father Oppenheimer, believed in the cause, but also wanted to expand the influence of his cult. Natasha, the Professional who could jury-rig a weapon out of anything lying around, was loosely based on real-life activist Brace Belden, also known as Twitter User PissPigGranddad, who volunteered to join a Kurdish militia in Syria. Natasha’s main concern was staying out of the spotlight. Our leader was Stan, a trade union leader turned blogger who made a zine called The New Leaf that leftists in Monarch had rallied around.
Although all these people were united under the same cause and also wanted the same end result, getting from point A to point B was a struggle. As the GM, I kept having to remind them that there was more to this fight than their own personal needs. I started introducing more immediate dangers—cops with batons, tear gas—to keep them moving and thinking on their feet. We had some disastrous, and hilarious, failures. When Natasha tried to use her MacGyver skills to make a smoke bomb, she rolled a four, so she ended up covered in soot and attracting attention to herself. When Stan tried to get the word out that they were being attacked by the police, he also rolled a four, and so social media turned on him instead. Telling him, “Nah man, you’re getting roasted on Twitter right now,” was a personal highlight for me as a GM.
This is not all that different from how activism goes down in real life. Leftists tend to pride themselves on being able to hold their own side accountable, but that leads to a lot of infighting. Around the table, people started jokingly calling other people “wreckers” for being detriments to the cause. Still, by the end of the game, our players came together, because they realized that they had to.
No matter how much some of the characters personally disliked each other—and some of them did not like each other very much at all—we all knew that we were here to fight for a better world. Personal disagreements could be hashed out later. Right now, we needed to escape the cops and live to fight another day. Comrades’ system really emphasizes the communal nature of leftist activism. At the end of a session, players vote on which of them had best embodied the revolutionary spirit, and that character then rolls to see whether or not the revolution as a whole advances because of the group’s actions. For us, we decided the moment Natasha kept the front line together, linking their arms against the cops charging at them, was the truest to the spirit of our cause. No matter the foibles that followed, that image of strength and unity in the face of adversity was the one we wanted to remember.
We are socialists because we believe in a better world. I don’t agree with every single socialist that has ever lived, and just like the activists in our game, I sometimes find that I really hate people who are technically on “my side.” Ultimately, though, what matters most to me is creating a more just society that serves the most destitute among us. Playing Comrades was a good reminder of what really matters. Keep on eye on Akers’s newsletter to keep up with updates about the game. If you too dream of a day when there are no more billionaires, then playing this game can help you keep your eyes on the prize.